When April Fools' Gets Too Real: Theater Edition

Two really strange but believable theater news stories popped up over the weekend as jokes on Internet theater and geek culture fans. The problem? Unlike the pranks at a site like XKCD or Film School Rejects, there really weren't any obvious clues that maybe these were jokes. On the one hand, you can commend the writers for coming up with believable stories. They clearly took note of trends and brainstormed ideas that read super-realistic online even on April Fools' Day. On the other hand, when a prank isn't funny online, isn't it just trolling? The only person really laughing is the person who posted the story.

The first one that really picks up on trends comes from the Godspell revival currently running on Broadway. Broadway World reported yesterday that there would be Kindle nights at the show. The show is built on audience interaction and makes enough pop culture references--a moment of prayer for Steve Jobs and the like--to have a techy twist on Broadway make sense.

Kindle SeatsA few weeks ago, Godspell became the first Broadway production to have a Twitter night. Special seats were available where theater attendees could have their phones out and live tweet the performance. I read a lot of reports from people at that performance--tweeters and not--who all said that you wouldn't have noticed where the cellphone users were if you didn't see them seated at the start of the performance.

So, how hard is it to imagine that a production struggling to fill the house on weeknights would offer a new incentive to go to the show? People who buy Kindle seats would receive a Godspell book light and ear plugs so they can tune out if the show loses their interest. It seems like an odd strategy, but it's not that different from people who suddenly whip out their iPods or start thumbing through the program to kill time during slow scenes.

If you're reading the article today, you're not reading the original version. The new version really exaggerates the rhetoric of the technological ghetto comment (which I do not recall at all from yesterday) and adds in an April Fools' Day message. I suppose the former was added in because most people did not realize there was a joke. This is, after all, the show that wanted people to not pay attention to the actors and use distracting electronic devices for two hours instead.

The second story comes from a non-theater source, but still reads as quite plausible given some theater trends. Disney Theatricals is really looking for their next big hit production. Tim Burton properties are being optioned--like his Alice in Wonderland--to be turned into musicals aiming for Broadway. Sci-fi/horror shows are making a big come back, with productions as diverse as Re-Animator, Carrie, The Toxic Avenger, and Chix6--a superhero musical--all trying to get to Broadway.

So when Geeks of Doom claimed that a Mars Attacks musical had Broadway ambitions on Friday, it felt real. For one thing, I swear I've heard of people trying to option the rights to this music-driven sci-fi story before. For another, it's a total camp fest that could lend itself to a really big show.

The only thing to suggest that the story could be a gag was the statement that the show wasn't written yet. That hasn't stopped many shows from announcing a Broadway run before they were written. Love Never Dies and Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland both announced Broadway bows before the shows were written. The former is still being rewritten/reimagined and the latter just announced itself by saying it had a director.

Everyone wants their show to go to Broadway. You say "we're coming to Broadway" to convince investors they should pony up the cash for your show. I have Broadway bound musicals that haven't even had staged readings yet. It's just the rhetoric you use to drum up interest.

Last night, Geeks of Doom updated the article to say it was, sadly, a joke. Aside from relief that another show concept better suited for an intimate theater would not be eaten alive on Broadway, I was struck by how unfunny the whole prank was. Bad musicals are written every single day. Good and bad musicals get to Broadway based on money and contracts, not artistic merit or public demand. Where's the gag in saying "just kidding" about something that seemed just as plausible as a musical adaptation of Lysistrata, The Addams Family, or the complete works of Dr. Seuss?

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

I'm all for a prank on April Fools' Day. Just make it funny. If you're going to go with the serious news story as a prank, make it really absurd. The Onion works because--from headline to conclusion--the stories just fall into satire. Even political strategists and journalists can be tricked by Onion headlines, but (as the video on the right shows) they can get a good laugh out of the absurdity.

Saying a production that already allowed cellphones during a performance will hand out book lights and ear plugs isn't far enough from the truth, especially since it crowd sourced its funding. Announcing a campy sci-fi musical as the source for a new musical isn't that far a stretch, especially when people have been begging for a second stab at cult classic Carrie: The Musical for two decades.

Emily Dickinson wrote, "Tell all the truth but tell it slant." If you're going for hyper realism in a prank, there has to be enough off about it--something to clearly kick it into parody territory--to come across as an actual prank. No cheating by altering the content (beyond confirming it's a joke) after people thought it was real.

Saying "just kidding" does not a good prank make. You have to make the reveal worth it. Stories that would be viewed as real news any other day of the year probably aren't the best choice unless you really ramp up the absurdity the first time they're published.

But here's where this kind of discussion gets tricky. Does the creation of a fake news story for April Fools' Day that results in people like me writing about it make the prank an effective one? Does interest in a prank mitigate any flaws that existed in the execution? And does calling attention to pranks that may have gone too close to the truth actually encourage more people to take the same approach? I don't have those answers.

All I know is that I really do want a Mars Attacks musical now to see how the aliens would be handled onstage. Puppets? Projections? Cast every other role with 6'+ actors and cast the aliens 5'4" and under ala The Lord of the Rings musical in Toronto? We'll never know.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

The Link Rally: 2 April 2012

This Week in Media: French Nonsense Song Sweep Sites